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Excerpt From 'Cooking With Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories From Tuscany to Sicily'

That first day, Carluccia and I floated between gathering olives for curing, and preparing lunch for everyone else. Carluccia had some things already set aside for the meal, so all we really had to do was make a batter for fried squash flower blossoms, warm up a big pot of mixed beans, and fill a glass bottle with the olive oil they had on tap. As we folded the tight squash buds into a thick batter of semolina flour, water, and eggs, Carluccia and I talked about Calabrian food traditions, past and present. "The young people of today don't know good taste," Carluccia told me. "Those who grew up on the land, with parents as farmers, do. There are a few that have remained in the countryside. But the small farmer basically doesn't exist anymore. She just doesn't exist. We are all but lost."

I spent the next few weeks unabashedly following Carluccia around everywhere she went. It turned out she was more farmer than cook, and that cooking was merely a natural extension of working the land. We spent time together in both the fields and her simple cooking hut. We rolled pasta for hours, foraged for wild greens and spices, shelled beans, hung onions to dry, and picked strange fruits from old varieties of trees. We prepared lunches for the olive harvesters, and preserved vegetables for the shelves.

We were feeding the olive workers in the same way that Carluccia's grandmother fed the paricchiu years ago. In the past, when they didn't have enough hands to work the fields, they called in other farmers with their animals and plows to help. Paricchiu was the dialect term that referred to this whole package of labor. While the paricchiu worked the fields, planting or harvesting, Carluccia and her grandmother would prepare a special lunch of filej, fresh Calabrian pasta. It was just water and flour. We made it together on a few damp evenings, in a little shed off the fields.

Carluccia started by filling a plastic tub with soft flour. She poured a few glugs of water into the tub and began turning the flour and water together. Very quickly there was a thick goopy mass of dough coating her right hand. She continued folding it upon itself, again and again. "Watch the weather! If it's too humid outside, the dough gets soft and is hard to knead. If it's dry outside, and hard to incorporate the flour into the softer parts of the dough, sprinkle a little water with your hands over the pasta. Knead until it becomes smooth." She was leaning slowly and fully into the dough, rocking it rhythmically from side to side. This pasta was made from the hips.

Once the dough was smooth and springy to the touch of a thumb, Carluccia and I rolled it into thick ropes and then thinner strands. We tore the strands into segments about two inches long, and sprinkled them with a dusting of flour. Then, one by one, for a good hour, we twisted our little pasta worms around stalks of grain, and rolled them out in confident strokes. We ended up with hundreds of filej.

Rolling soft spirals of pasta was both pleasure and necessity for Carluccia. Pleasure in that the family and workers always loved a meal of filej, dressed with tomatoes, or beans, or herby greens, and olive oil. And necessity because it was too expensive to buy a lot of pasta asciutta (dried pasta). Her family had grown varieties of wheat for generations; it was freshly milled, inexpensive, and made delicious pastas and breads. As a family they had always been, and still were, almost totally self-sufficient. Carluccia told me that the only things she buys are coffee, sugar, and salt. Even the soap she uses is made from last year's olive oil.

From Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily. © 2011 Jessica Theroux.

Read an interview with Jessica Theroux.

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